Today felt like a good day. For the first time since Kyle embarked on this journey, he slept in the same bed twice and slept past daybreak. He finally felt comfortable in a space of his own. On an empty shelf he had put the books that had been in his bag when he had left home those many days ago; in the closet he had clothes hanging, those which Felicity had acquired for him; on the dresser was a gift that Edward had left for him: a bottle of cologne and a tie with the note ‘welcome home’ atop them. Once he finished grooming and dressing, splashing on a liberal amount of cologne, and was finally pleased him the image that appeared in the mirror (he looked rather dapper in a button down), he stepped out into a very charged hallway. People were moving around with an intense, singular purpose. Everyone was abuzz and anxious; no one was paying him much attention for the first time since he had arrived at the castle.
He stood in his doorway and watched. Everyone, like a school of fish, pushed themselves forward in the same direction, so he decided to follow. At the end of the hallway he spotted Edward and Wes, who looked like a different man in full uniform and surprisingly alert considering the state in which Kyle last saw him. The two were holding a hushed, fervent conversation. Kyle halted and the person behind rear-ended him.
“Sorry,” Kyle mumbled, giving the annoyed man an apologetic smile. He trailed off to the side to get out of the way of the current, wondering what caused the two Fosters to have such somber faces. Out of the corner of his eye, Edward caught sight of Kyle. Wes followed his gaze and smiled with a wave at Kyle; Kyle waved back. The two returned to each other. Edward patted Wes on the arm, turned and left. Once the elder Foster had departed, Wes motioned for Kyle to join him.
“Good morning, Kyle, you’re looking spiffy.” When Kyle got closer, Wes’ nose twitched, “And smell spiffier.”
“Oh, yeah, thought it’d be nice to dress, you know, nice,” Kyle replied, smoothing out his poorly tied tie.
“Come here.” Wes straightened out Kyle’s shoulders, then put his hands to fixing the tie, adjusting the knot until it was centered. “Much better. And I imagine that stench will wear off a little once we get outside. Smell a bit like ole Eddie, but a very intense version of him.”
“Oh, he gave this to me,” Kyle paused and tried to smell himself, “Stench?” He knew when he doused himself that maybe he had gone a little heavy on the cologne, but he couldn’t quite figure out how much was too much. He just imagined that Felicity might be more accustomed to guys with ties and cologne.
“Don’t give it another thought. Certain Felicity won’t even notice,” Wes smiled. He slung his arm around the younger man and began to guide him through the hall. He noticed Kyle blushing. “So, the rumors are true?”
“There are always rumors swirling around here. About ten percent are true. That one about you and Noirah, I assumed that one was false. Better be false because it’s a hard thing balancing two women at once and, further, I’d have to kill you for mistreating two of my top five favorite gals. Imagine that they’d kill you first, then maybe kill each other. The carnage, so sad.”
Kyle face-palmed, wondering how many people these past few days were actually checking him out because they thought he was Noirah’s baby daddy, or a double-dipping Casanova and not because he was an Outsider. He buried his face deeper in his hand.
“Yeah, Noirah and I are just friends,” Kyle replied.
“And you and little Flea?” Wes insisted.
“Yeah, maybe, I don’t know,” Kyle hemmed.
“The thing is, Kyle, you never will. That’s the beauty of women, you never will know anything. That’s why I shall always love them.” His eye twinkled, “And my ignorance is why they will always love me. We Fosters, however, have been reined in and so the world mourns.”
“Ahem,” The sound of a throat being cleared interrupted the two’s conversation.
“Oh boy,” Wes groaned. He let go of Kyle’s shoulders and gracefully pivoted to face the slight, hunched over figure behind them. Kyle almost felt bad for the little guy. Sam was pushing up his glasses, avoiding but occasional eye contact with either of them. “What’s going on, Sammy?”
“Oh, well, Colonel, um, as it is, and I am sorry, that is I apologize for intruding upon your conversation, and the talking of people or what you will with,” Sam took a breath, his whole body taking a break from the constant twitches and tics which were accompanying his sputtering speech, “the thing is, the need for your presence, the body of your person required...it is quite pressing, sir, Colonel, mister,” Sam finished and gazed down at his hands which still had some residue movement. “The king, sir. It’s time, for, as you know, of course, to go, Mr. Foster, comrade.” Sam closed his eyes with his teeth grinding, his silent self-chastisement loud and clear.
“Going there now, Sammy. Would you like to join Kyle and me to the grounds?”
Sam’s eyes grew wide behind his oversized glasses. “Oh sir, no sir. I couldn’t. I, well, thank you but no, no. I have work and the such and with all the matters, and plus business. Oh, but thank you. Um, good day, Colonel, and to you as well, Mr. Walters. But thank you and no.” Sam backed away, bowing every once and a while. He then spun around to head off to whatever location required him. Kyle watched him long enough to see him knock into an unsuspecting victim. After an attempt to help the other up, despite the vehement refusal of said help, Sam sped away round the corner, clipping his shoulder on the wall.
“He’s really like that all the time?” Kyle wondered aloud.
“As long as I’ve known him. It’s kind of sad, he’d say great things if only he could get out the words.” Wes strode ahead and Kyle quickly followed. They reached an open double door that led to the grounds where breakfast had been held the day before. A mass of people, many of whom were dressed in uniform similar to Wes, filled the field. The little conversations united themselves into a wave of thunder that assaulted Kyle the moment his foot touched the grass.
“What’s happening?” Kyle asked.
Wes nodded and smiled at someone who greeted him in passing, “Oh, haven’t heard? We’re going. You must know, you came to dinner last night, if I’m remembering correctly. Never forget anything when I’m drinking, but I do tend to remember things that have never happened.”
“Yeah, I was there,” Kyle assured him. “I helped you open a door.”
“Hm, yes, the tricky door,” Wes grinned, “After a night like that, the only place to go is away. Whole city comes out for it and, I must confess, I am a sucker for the pomp and circumstance. I look amazing amongst the grandeur, the parade through the city streets; women crying out.”
“Wes!” a woman yelled from the crowd.
“And so it begins.” Wes squared his shoulder and waited for the owner of the beloved voice to make herself appear. He might love the ado but he hated the goodbye. He spotted Kara rushing to him and he opened his arms for her. She flung herself without shame and buried her head into his shoulder. Wes beamed: it was always a pleasure to have the only woman that you wanted to see held tight in your arms. He’d never want another.
“Where were you?” she demanded, breaking out of his arms and shoving him. “You left and didn’t tell me where!”
“It’s his fault,” Wes replied, pointing at Kyle.
“What?” Kyle shrieked, afraid that she might hit him too. But looking at her, Kyle thought that he might enjoy it. Wait, where did that thought come from? Her brown eyes narrowed as she looked at him. Could she read his thoughts?
“You’re the boy from the Outside,” she said slowly.
“Uh, the man,” Kyle corrected, puffing out his chest a little. “I’m him, the man from the Outside.”
Kara’s thin red lips twitched, but she managed to keep a straight face.
“That’s right, you are,” Wes agreed, placing his arm around Kara, and pulling her tightly against him. “You can smell the manliness from here.”
“You said --”
“Wesley, don’t tease. Felicity won’t even --”
“Does everyone know?” Kyle cried out. “Not that there’s anything to know.” He paused. “We’re friends. I met her like two days ago! I mean, it’s been a really full two days. Erg, it’s...” If he spoke less, he’d get into much less trouble.
“Kyle!” He’d recognize that voice anywhere, but now he found himself trying to hide from Felicity’s sight. He could see Wesley and Kara sharing a look and he began to feel like the boy that Kara saw.
“Ah, I see you also have women shouting for you,” Wes chuckled, “Quite the protégé.”
Felicity ran up to the group of three. “Hello Wes. Kara.” She gave them both a look, “What’s so funny? Do I have something on my face?” Her nose twitched, “What’s that smell?”
“Must be the crowd. Scents always arise when large groups of people convene in a tiny place. There’s always that one guy who overdoes it with the cologne,” Wes replied, kissing Kara on top of her head of silky, black hair, thinking over all the silly little things that he had done in his hopeless adoration of her. The silly had won her, when his humor had failed.
“Sure,” Felicity agreed warily, her eyes jumping from the couple to Kyle, wondering what joke she was missing out on and why Kyle’s face was growing so red. She linked her arm in his.
“I don’t think you’ll mind if I steal him,” she said.
“Don’t think that he’ll mind,” Wes answered.
Felicity raised her eyebrow, then shook her head defeated. If anyone needn’t be told how quickly everyone knew everyone’s business around here, she was that person. Although Wes wasn’t everyone, he was that pesky type of brother who made your life miserable, but whom you couldn’t live without. Felicity called to mind her meeting that morning with her true brother. She was always struck by the sight of him in uniform. He looked like a man in that uniform, not Davey, her big, annoying brother. Now he was leaving. After everything that had happened to her family, this felt like another unbearable blow.
“Stay safe, Wes,” she said simply.
“But not too safe,” Kara added. “I would like to see some type of scar marring that baby face of yours. I get teased mercilessly for dating such pretty boy.”
“A pretty boy? I’ll show you and get a whole face full of scars, make myself even more irresistible,” Wes countered, squeezing Kara tightly in his arms and turning her so that she faced him. She squirmed in his arms, as he tried to give her a kiss. Kyle felt Felicity tugging and he relented and followed, but part of him wanted to watch. He wanted to learn how to be sweet and relaxed and in love with the only person whom you wanted to see every day whether your eyes were open or closed. He wanted people to stare enviously at him and Felicity because they had something lovely and fun and what else. What was it that he could see, but not quite understand? He had seen it in the way his mother looked at his father in that picture. That’s what he wanted: something that was forever even if it was as ephemeral as a bolt of lightning.
“They’re sickening, really,” Felicity commented, breaking their silence while stealing a backwards glance. “They’re like my parents: two people who just so naturally fit together. Even when they fight, that tie is always there and they always find their way back no matter how great the struggle. Who can explain that ineffable force that draws two people together?” She joined her arm with Kyle’s and rested a hand atop his bicep. She couldn’t decide if the confusion that now settled on his face was due to her touch, or because he truly didn’t understand what she had said and what she meant to imply. Well, her mother always told her, when it comes to boys, be as clear as possible; they didn’t always grasp subtlety. “It’s nice to find someone like that, to find that special bond. You just feel it, the natural closeness.”
“Uh, yeah, special bonds.” He stopped. “Wait, are you trying to say that we have one?”
“Do you think that we do?”
For the first time ever, Kyle kind of wished that he was back in the woods facing that unnamed assailant. That was a much clearer contest, although this one was just as lopsided and not in his favor. He slowly released a breath, “Well, I think we’re both special people and I would say that we’re bonding, but not in like some lewd way, or anything.” He choked, “Like this kind of bonding, two arms linked and bonded. Nice and chaste. Not that it has to stay that way forever, unless you want chaste forever,” Why was he still talking? God, why was his brain so malfunctioning? He could think of a million better things to say and this is what was coming out? Come on, Kyle, pull yourself together. “I’d be cool with chastity for life. I’d enjoy it, in fact.” Not pulling it together, Kyle. And his mouth continued to move, “I’ve been pretty much okay with it now for 18 years, what’s 80 more? Although, I’d enjoy not being --”
“Yes, I’m saying we have a special bond.” Felicity interrupted, when she felt that he started to envy the dead. She personally could have listened to him ramble forever. It was charming.
“Uh, yeah? A special bond?” Kyle asked, calm and frantic at the same moment.
“I think so.” She pressed her body up against his and closed her eyes. Her lips reached out to his. Kyle took a step back and his jaw dropped incredulously. When it dawned on Felicity that Kyle was not reciprocating her gesture, she opened her eyes.
“Yeah, um, sorry about that. I wasn’t sure if I was reading the signs right. But you wanted to kiss?” he replied.
“That was the general idea. Perhaps I should have written an invitation?”
“You joke, but it might have helped.” Kyle peered around at all the people surrounding them. People were going to talk about this moment all day probably; he would be the fodder for gossip because he was going to get kissed by a girl. Yes, Kyle Walters was going to get kissed by a girl. “So, am I still invited?”
“I don’t see why not,” Felicity answered with a confidence that Kyle sorely lacked.
Felicity resumed her former pose and Kyle felt the first pangs of anxiety. He could do this. He committed himself to the action. All he had to do was put his lips to hers. People did it all the time and seemed to have no trouble. He began to lean in, unable to believe that he was really going to do this. His lips began to tingle. He could barely feel them. Why did her face still seem so far away and yet too quickly approaching. He closed his eyes. Any moment now...
“Hey guys!” Mac shouted, waving over the crowd of heads at them.
Felicity groaned and straightened herself and Kyle’s body started to twitch with tics more appropriate to Sam. What happened? They were so close!
“We should head over,” she groused. “But you owe me one.”
“Yeah, I will definitely get back to you on that,” Kyle agreed. At least now he had some time to plan a majestic moment, something with a horse-drawn carriage and roses and candles and violins. A rainbow, perhaps? He should also practice on the crook of his elbow again. It had been a while. Did his lips even remember?
His own face made a magical display of colors, when he caught sight of the amusement dancing in Mac’s eyes. After Kyle had left Noirah’s room the night before, Mac stopped him and hinted that he regretted how he went about his complaints to Kyle; he, as a friend, shouldn’t have put Kyle on the spot. Lucky for Mac, Kyle didn’t have it in his heart to hold a grudge. “Interrupt something?” he asked Kyle, while Anna whispered an apology to Felicity. Kyle felt Felicity untwine her arm from his; it wasn’t an unwelcome gesture, but he certainly couldn’t help but dwell on the lost potential of that moment.
“I can’t believe they’re going,” Anna moaned, bringing everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand, as was her way.
“Do we know when they’re coming back?” Mac asked, genuinely concerned.
“No,” Anna replied, gripping her stomach. It felt so empty.
They all grew silent and took in the scene. The air stood still, laden with the late morning’s tangible tension. Everyone around them seemed nervous, eyes gazing around anxiously, accusingly. Most people spent the time as close as they could to those about to depart. Hands held tight to other hands, as though they might hold their loved ones from floating away from them to a blind future. One could fool themselves into feeling safe by the present proximity that they now enjoyed with family and friends. Felicity felt a pang in her own heart.
The procession started to take shape before Felicity. The men were lining up, while the crowd drifted to the sides to give them room. It was beginning. David and Wes and all the rest, some of whom she had never met, were going to go and this time it felt different. She was scared. Her whole life drifted from fear to fear, when a few years ago, not so many years ago, maybe never, the most frightening thing she faced was the monster under her bed or the clash of thunder outside of her window. Every step into adulthood opened her eyes to the precariousness of every step she took, but still gave her the courage to keep walking with the hope of happiness at the end of the road. She looked at Kyle. She felt selfish for having a crush on a boy when such things were happening, but she was still human. Sometimes she could still be human. She took his hand and didn’t care who saw. The overjoyed look on his face warmed her. She squeezed his hand in return.
The sound of beating drums filled the air. Everyone grew silent and all eyes were drawn to a small wooden platform in front of the troops. The king with a regal demeanor stepped onto the elevated structure. For a few moments he said nothing, taking everything in. His eyes lingered on the lines of young men standing at attention before him. He felt his age today; today, he felt his title. The only thing that he didn’t feel was control over this situation. But he had agreed to ship them off. In the end he gave the nod and this is what it brought. He cleared his throat, prepared to speak:
“Today our boys head out to an unknown enemy, to what can only be termed unknown circumstances. In these times, nothing seems knowable. For some time things have been shrouded in a murky veil and now we must break through the mire with force. These aren’t safe times. It’s no secret. I won’t pretend that these blue skies accurately reflect our circumstances. One pities the sun for what it must witness.” The king broke off. He looked at his son who kept his face neutral. Not only his own child, but those of so many others marched off into the chaos by his command. His stomach tightened with guilt. No, he could indulge himself later, now he would be king. “We all know this. Matters have been moved from our hands and placed in the strong ones of these men before us. Now all I can offer are my prayers to you, boys. May you all complete this journey and return speedily to your home and families. May things be brought to peace and may we all face our trials with your bravery. God speed and fortune be with you.” The speech concluded. Then the king bowed his head. The troops, in a maneuver so crisp that they seemed to have become one entity, brought their right fist across to their left shoulder and bowed their heads in return. With a snap they once more returned to a neutral position. Wes, ahead of them all, was spurred to motion. He reared up his horse and pulled out his sword in excitement.
“You heard him, boys. March out. Let’s maintain our martial decorum for the streets below. Let’s give ’em a show.” He saluted the king who saluted him back and then proceeded to lead his troops in a march. With immense grace the others followed to the fanfare they would receive before they entered their true field of battle. They were gone before Kyle blinked. He found himself staring at an empty open field and wondered if they were ever there to begin with. The dinner last night felt like a dream inhabited by shadows. He put his hands to his tie, and felt like a ghost had fixed it.
“That was inspirational,” Mac muttered, as the civilian crowd began to disperse in hushed conversations. Eyes were gazing around suspiciously.
“It was a rather odd speech. Perhaps a bit bereft of the old hurrah,” Anna agreed. Felicity nodded glumly beside her.
The little group wandered back into the palace with a cloud hanging over them, wondering how they fit in with the bigger events that surrounded them or if the world just swirled around them, moving regardless of their existence.
“Oh,” Anna broke through the new misery with a lighter tone. Now that she had marked off one item in her mental itinerary, she could move onto the next. “I have an invitation for dinner at my house tonight to extend to you all.”
“Really?” Felicity questioned, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Silver finally give you an evening off?”
“Well,” Anna dropped her voice to a whisper, “Today several members of the Senate have organized a secret meeting for tonight, so secret that I was not supposed to know about it. You know, I think that there’s a lot of things that I know that I shouldn’t.” She looked meaningfully at Mac, “See, working hard with attentive ears has its benefits.”
“Look at these,” Mac emphatically pointed at his ear, “so attentive right now.”
“What’s it about?” Felicity asked anxiously.
“That much I don’t know, but it can’t be good since not everyone has been invited. In fact, I’ve been dismissed for the day, all the interns have. It’s probably nothing but internal squabbling. I’ve never known Silver to step outside the boundaries of the law.”
“Perhaps because he’s altered it so that he’s never had to,” Noirah answered, sneaking up behind them. She easily joined the group as though she had been there the whole time. “I actually bumped into your Mr. Silver. It’s interesting to see what evil looks like engirdled in human flesh. I thought that he’d have devil horns by now, but alas, he has maintained his human visage rather well. We’d all be better off if he just fell off this plane of existence.”
“Oh, don’t say that Noirah,” Anna rebuked, squirming a little while her eyes remained alert for any sign of the man. “He’s really not as bad as he seems. I mean, personally, he’s not a terrible man, just the other day he bought his entire staff lunch.”
“So said Hansel to Gretel.” Noirah rolled her eyes, but when she espied Anna’s unease, she decided to change the course of the conversation. “Your hair looks nice, for once.”
“Don’t you people have eyes?” Mac asked flabbergasted as he watched Kyle and Felicity become clued into what was obvious to everyone else that Anna did look different. Rather than the nest upon her head, her hair was pulled back into a neat, clean ponytail. Her clothes were ironed and matched and she even seemed to be wearing make-up. It was nothing extravagant, but noticeable. “I’ve been teasing her all morning about the way she looks.”
“I just had the day off, that’s all. Considering what we just witnessed, I’d say my hair is fairly inconsequential,” Anna reprimanded them all, self-consciously fiddling with her hair. She didn’t do anything to it and people talked; she put it up and people talked. Why did the way she look have to cause such ripples? Mr. Kinney had a haircut just that day and no one even noticed. But she? She puts on lip gloss and the world has a million comments! Why did the way she looked have to have so much meaning!
“Inconsequential? You have a day off. It’s practically a miracle.” Felicity looked absolutely giddy as she took the hand of her friend and began to swing it. “I can’t remember the last time you and I had the opportunity to waste a day in fun. It’d be good to take our minds off affairs.” Anna looked over her shoulder with complete dismay and a silent plea for help when Felicity started to drag her away.
Kyle wasn’t sure if he should follow them or not, but a hand on his arm stopped him. “Trust me, the princess’ version of fun and yours are very different. In fact, I think it differs a great deal from Anna’s as well.”
“Yea, she’d rather do work on her day off.” Mac and Noirah shared a laugh, but ceased from the action almost as soon as it started. They looked at each other with shared horror and interest.
“I won’t ever mention this if you don’t,” Noirah quipped.
“If I never say your name again, I’ll consider myself blessed,” Mac answered. “See you later, Walters. If I plan to keep my word and play nice, I should leave.” Mac patted him on the shoulder and gave a fleeting glance at Noirah. Kyle could have sworn the boy wanted to stick his tongue out at the girl, but managed to contain that impulse.
“I should be going as well. I’ve had some time to sneak into the archives. I haven’t found much yet, but I might have a few leads. Not to where your father might be now, but some stuff to fill in the story for you. And now that I know most of the offices on Silver’s floor might be emptier than normal, my sleuthing expands.” She winked at him.
“But I haven’t seen you all day. And we barely hung out at all yesterday. Maybe I can help you. It could be fun,” Kyle offered.
“Kid, I don’t see you being able to help me much with matters of research,” Noirah countered. “Besides, from what I’ve heard, you didn’t really miss me at all this morning. Things aren’t so fun when Felicity leaves you, huh?”
“Are you ever going to let up with the Felicity thing?” Kyle pled.
Noirah pursed her lips and then shook her head, “Nope. I’d lose a lot of my energy if I wasn’t so fueled by hate.”
Per usual, Noirah left with the last word. Kyle stood alone. Two people passed him and he caught part of their conversation:
“Did you smell that?” the one asked.
“A rat must have died in the walls,” the other answered.
Kyle frowned and decided the best course for the afternoon would be to take a book outside and air himself out until dinner.
Kyle, Noirah and Anna had spent most of the early evening lounging in Anna’s room until dinner was ready. Despite Anna’s and Kyle’s insistence that they help her mom prepare the meal (Noirah devoted her attention to shuffling through the mail rather than feigning interest in helping), Mrs. Reynolds, however, shooed them away. Somehow with Anna’s little sister Leslie in her arms and with an arithmetic book open on the counter (her youngest son was floundering in the subject but Mrs. Reynolds was determined to help him, even if it meant a refresher course of her own), the woman still managed to cook something that smelled just that close to Heaven. It was no wonder from whom Anna had inherited her own industrious nature and independence. ‘Get outta here! I don’t need any extra hands or opinions cluttering my kitchen,’ she had proclaimed. Anna graciously had taken her baby sister from her mother and led her friends up to her room.
Anna’s bedroom was small, made smaller when Leslie’s crib had been moved in, an unexpected, but welcome, addition to the Reynolds family, which unfortunately did not come with an addition to their house. Something about the room felt very distant from the Anna that Kyle had gotten to know: it was relaxed. Yes, there was a clutter of books, study materials and newspapers, but Anna, the girl, created a secret, yet tidy, cavern where she could free herself from the restraints of her mind. A particularly amusing note, written by Felicity in the middle of a particularly boring English class in their 4th year, was taped onto her wall; porcelain figurines of elephants of various sizes paraded themselves throughout the room, a whimsical obsession of a girl who had never seen one in the flesh, but was enamored by their massive forms and graceful trunks. Various books, ranging from the serious tomes of the greats to still read picture books, were arranged in a secret code on bookshelves. Several stuffed animals slept on the bed. And most surprising of all, a vanity set was placed in front of the window, which was bracketed by light yellow curtains, and on top of it sat makeup and hair brushes and creams. Anna’s dirty secret: sometimes she liked to play dress up. A fancy would occasionally rise up and Anna desired to be a Felicity-type girl. It never lasted long, and she always felt silly and ashamed by her own weakness, but still, Anna sometimes enjoyed seeing that she was pretty when so many people made jokes to the contrary.
The trio were hanging out as naturally as though they had been doing that their whole lives. Kyle and Anna were relaxing on her bed. Anna had propped herself on her pillows and stretched out her legs over Kyle’s thighs. He was sitting back, supported by the wall. Noirah leaned over the crib and stared at the sleeping baby.
“Can’t believe I missed the birth of another Reynolds.” She reached in and brushed the girl’s chubby cheek. “I don’t like babies on principle, but this one seems alright.”
“I would have told you but, I didn’t even know how to get in contact with you.” Though Anna hardly wished to pick at this scab so early when things were calm and easy, her house afforded her a privacy that the palace did not. “Is it true you went north?”
“Seems so.” Noirah pushed herself from the crib and flopped down onto the chair at the vanity. “When did people get wind of it?”
“Nearly seven months after you left. We spent spies up there, obviously not looking for you, but some Senators leaned on the king to be more proactive about the threat up north. One of them spotted your family, talking to people who are of interest.”
“We only talk to interesting people, Anna. Everyone knows that,” Noirah dodged the question. She picked up a hairbrush and began to play with her hair as she caught Anna’s eye in the looking-glass. “Espionage is a pretty big move. What brought on the anxiety? Thought people would be calm with the great Tillard threat kaput.”
“Rumor had it that they sent spies first or that they were buying the loyalty of some disgruntled citizens.” Anna took a deep breath. She had debated on whether or not to share the next bit with Noirah, but her friend needed to know into what world she entered and how careful she should be. “They actually threw Sal’s name around as a potential double-agent.”
“What?” Noirah exclaimed, spinning around in the chair. Kyle nearly choked on his breath at the same moment when he heard Sal’s name.
“He didn’t even know where we were!” Noirah defended. Anna held up her arms innocently. “The gods, Anna, he’s friends with people here!”
“He holds a certain fondness for certain people here, but he’s also a revolutionary of sorts. He aids in the manufacturing of a paper which is very vocal in its critique and dissent of the current state of affairs and specific individuals running things,” Anna replied, never quiet comfortable doling out public reprimands to friends. In the two years that Noirah had been absent, however, things had happened, and Anna knew things that Noirah probably didn’t. She liked Sal, she didn’t believe much of what was said about him. But then again, what if she should? Where in the rumor did falsity stop and truth begin? Complacency could breed ruin, but so could witch hunts. She hated not knowing everything.
“Yeah, I bet he did have something to say about certain individuals,” Noirah bit back.
“He needs to be careful, Noirah. He can get himself into a lot of trouble. He already lost his job because of some poorly made decisions and has nearly been arrested. If it weren’t for the king, he would have been and I don’t know how much longer Mr. Sterne can stave off some people from pursuing what they deem justice for a man with treasonous connections, whether or not he’s actually affiliated with them. You, of all people, know how things can get,” Anna pressed. “Silver had surveillance placed on him and there are some spans of time where we don’t know where he is or what he’s doing,” Anna added quietly.
Noirah crumpled over in the chair with her head resting in her hands. “That’s just Sal. He probably wandered into an alley and couldn’t find his way out.” She lifted her head and looked miserable. “He wouldn’t betray anyone. He has too big a heart to hurt people.”
“I know.” Anna nodded solemnly. “I know.”
The room was silent. Baby Leslie, safely cocooned in her dreams, shifted in her sleep, but seemed otherwise undisturbed by the commotion.
Finally Kyle spoke, “So it’s a bad thing that you went north?”
Noirah raised her eyes which flashed her annoyance. “It’s certainly not good, Kyle, so quit being so dense.” What had been an enjoyable afternoon was now descending into the muck that Noirah so wanted to escape. All one had to do was introduce her life into the mix and there you’d find a poison. She just wanted a few hours free from everything. She thankfully found a distraction to salvage their plans. “Hm, look.” She pointed to a picture on the vanity. “Is that a boy in that picture? Has Anna Reynolds found herself a beau?”
Anna’s face reddened. “I didn’t. He found me. Noah, that’s his name, is in the army and was always around the palace and I guess he liked me. That’s what he said. We’ve been keeping it secret. I like being Anna the intern. If I introduced a boy, I’d be Noah’s girlfriend. I was pleased that he accepted my demands. He’s really sweet and smart. You’d like him.”
“I do like most people, so I guess the odds are forever in his favor,” Noirah replied lazily. She stared a moment or two more at the photo. It was so strange to see Anna holding hands with a boy. She could still remember when they were kids and boys were diseased. Noirah still wasn’t sure that they weren’t. Thoughts of dating never came up in conversation. She wondered if that’s what she and Felicity spoke about. Maybe Anna didn’t think she was the kind of friend who would endure idle chatter. But in a world filled with too much weight, Noirah thought maybe she could be, but just for Anna and maybe for only like a minute or two. Sometimes being a good friend meant listening to your friends even when you didn’t want to. Noirah grinned: see, she could be a good person too.
“Your parents like him? Have they met him?” Noirah queried. She stood up and cuddled next to Anna on the bed, only after taking a moment to shove her feet in Kyle’s face. He quickly slapped them away. They all already felt like the earlier contention had passed and was miles away.
“Of course, they’ve met him. And they love him. My mom especially. She practically cried when he said that he was leaving on a campaign. I think she’s really afraid for him,” Anna answered.
“Are you afraid?” Kyle asked.
Anna thought over her last moment with Noah, that final kiss, which they had assured each other would be followed by many more. She thought over the morning, watching everyone else share those moments. Communities were built on these moments of shared trouble; a community helped quell the fear. All alone the darkness could be terrifying. “I’m anxious that something might happen to him, but I can’t dwell on that. I’d go crazy if I focused on potential misfortunes. I put my faith in man and hope that we’ll all get through this.”
Noirah grimaced, “Are you sure that faith isn’t misplaced?”
“No, Noirah, I don’t. Every day I see people make the right choice, choose to be good. As long as one good person exists and continues to fight, I have faith in man. You’d do well to find some of your own.”
“It’s enough that I have faith in you.”
“What about me?” Kyle chirped.
Noirah turned her head with a frown, “You too, my little lamb.” He smiled: she meant it.
Kyle was making his way back from his room to the main den, where, as Mac had informed him and Noirah upon their arrival back from dinner at the Reynolds’ home, coffee and cake could be had. He had also strongly hinted that Felicity would be there. Kyle had only quickly gone to his room to store away a book that Anna had insisted Kyle read and was rushing back: he hadn’t seen Felicity all day. Up ahead he caught sight of her stealing out of a room with her back to him. He strode over happily and reached out to touch her shoulder with a greeting. She spun around sharply, accidentally hitting the door so that it opened wide. Inside the room Kyle saw a gaunt, middle-aged woman with straw-like hair sleeping soundly, tucked in like a child. Her skin was slightly gray, her face deeply lined even in rest and a strange, sickly odor emanated from the room. Yes despite all that, there was something familiar and gentle about the woman, like a sleeping maiden in a fairytale.
Felicity quickly shut the door, her face pale and angry.
“What do you think you’re doing? Spying on me?” she demanded.
“I…no? I just was saying hello. I’m sorry?” Kyle pleaded. “Is she okay?”
She searched his face and realized that of course Kyle wouldn’t do anything like that. He wasn’t someone whom she had to worry about. Her own paranoia was eating away at her sanity.
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bark at you.” She looked around the hallway: it was desolate but that was no reason to think that she could speak freely here. She took a very confused Kyle’s hand and led him down the hall until she found an open door of an empty room and guided him inside. She shut the door. They stood in the dark facing each other with only the moonlight offering illumination.
“That was my mother,” she informed Kyle, feeling more tired than an eighteen-year-old ought.
“So she’s not on a trip?” Kyle asked cautiously.
Felicity shook her head. “No, but my mother certainly isn’t here either.” She covered her face with her hands and tried to breath. The air hurt her lungs. “You can’t tell anyone. This is between you and me, no one else. Besides Mac, no one outside our family knows about this. Not even Anna. It is of the utmost importance that this information doesn’t leak out to the public, not unless circumstances dictate to disclose it.” Felicity took a moment to collect herself and her thoughts; a tumult of emotions were skillfully, unnaturally wrapped in her ever stoic appearance.
“What happened?” He approached Felicity and shepherded her to the bed. The two sat. Felicity seemed to relax, if only a little.
“We were out for a picnic,” Felicity began. “It was my mother, Peter and myself. It wasn’t even a month ago, but feels like a nightmare of yesterday. She was lounging on the blanket while I chased Peter. She was laughing and we were laughing and it was fun, such a wonderful day. I can still see her there, more clearly than I can see her in that room. I took it for granted. None of us knew what would happen. The ignorance was so beautiful and safe, but the illusion breaks.
“Peter had run off into the woods and I went to get him, when I heard my mother yell. I froze. She didn’t yell a word, but I knew that she meant for us not to go back there. The yell was for us, not for herself. It sounded like her soul was being torn out of her. Peter ran to me and I ran to hide him. I didn’t know what else to do but keep him safe. All we could hear was her screaming and crying and then she stopped. And I just held on to Peter. I couldn’t move. We sat there until my brother and Wesley came to get us. It was dark, we’d been missing for hours. They found us, but not her. They didn’t find her for nearly two weeks. And in that whole time we had to pretend it was normal. We still pretend. ‘Where’s your mother?’ ‘Oh, she’s gone to the islands on official business. She’ll be back. Oh, yes, she’s in the Eastern Realm on official business.’” Felicity brought her fingertips to her forehead. She looked ready to crush her own skull with those delicate fingers, but as they touched her skin, they fell defeated to her side.
“She’s not the same woman she was. She’s only half there on a good day. Sometimes she gets really agitated and she...well, I’m the only one who can calm her down. When she sees my father, I think that sometimes she sees them. She once smiled when Peter came to visit, but he’s frightened of her. He doesn’t understand why his mother is broken.” She looked through the walls separating her from her mother’s room and could see the woman sleeping. Who understood why her mother was broken? For what reason could anyone do that to anyone? Felicity used to believe that it showed a lack of humanity, but now she wondered if it displayed exactly what humanity was.
Felicity wrapped her arms around herself and looked down. The way that the moonlight hit her pale white cheek made her seem an apparition, some beautiful ghost returning to the Earth to bemoan lost love; some goddess who having finally found a mortal to love pressed her foot to the realm of humans for the first time. Kyle felt the urge to lean over and finally steal a kiss from her lips, to run his hand through her hair while they rested upon the mattress of the bed. He couldn’t: she didn’t need a kiss, she needed a friend. So Kyle smiled warmly and placed a supportive hand on her upper arm.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through or even how you’re able to do anything. I’d be a blubbering mess. But you’re – you’re way stronger than I could have been.”
“Thank you.” Then she hugged him. And he hugged her back and never had anyone fit so perfectly in his arms. “Thank you,” she whispered again in his ear.
When Kyle and Felicity finally made their way to the main den, the king, Noirah and Mac were already seated, forming a triangle by their placement. Mac, perusing a large picture book about exotic birds of the Outside, sat on the floor, resting his back on a rich, burgundy love-seat, which was situated centrally before the glowing fireplace. A plate full of crumbs and an empty mug rested on the coffee table in front of him; Noirah had nestled herself into a long, plush, light blue sofa, which was situated to the left of the door, as far as possible from the other seats. She barely raised her eyes from her book at Kyle’s entrance. And finally, across the room from Noirah and slightly in front of the love-seat, sat the king, who seemed lost in the cushions of a large, leather armchair and the towering amount of papers piled precariously on the end table next to him. One other armchair, mirroring the placement of the king’s, remained void and would be for the rest of the night since Noirah made no effort to join the group. The room was silent, except for the occasional crackle of the fire.
Portraits of the former kings hung on the walls, as well as other leading figures in the history of the land. Around the periphery, mementos were placed in glass casings, giving the room the feel of a museum. On the ceiling hung a grand, golden chandelier with a diadem of lights, basking the room in a warm, yellow glow. A large cream colored rug, which had magically remained stain free throughout the years, covered most of the rich oaken wood floor. The whole room was larger than Sal’s apartment, and no one seemed to notice.
Upon spotting her father busy with work, despite the fact that he had promised her one night of freedom, Felicity headed over and reprimanded him for reneging.
“There, look, I’m done,” the king finally conceded to his daughter, placing his workload on the ground beside him. The girl kissed him on the cheek.
“I just worry. You work so hard all the time,” Felicity sighed.
“Let me worry. That’s my job,” the king replied, squeezing her hand. “Now you and our guest ought to grab something to drink and a piece of cake before Mac finishes it all.”
“Heard that, sir,” Mac called out, lifting his hand in the air with his eyes drinking in the sight of an ostrich.
A small, silver serving table had been brought in for the evening. It was laden with a tray of cups and a carafe of coffee, along with a white porcelain cake stand, hand-painted with tiny flowers, upon which sat a delicate, sweet-smelling coconut cake. Such a baked good was a delicacy for the place, as coconut had always been a rarity, but had grown more desirable now that it could no longer be imported from the Outside.
“Would you like a piece?” Felicity asked, when Kyle joined her at the tray. “The palace’s baker is a talent.”
Kyle nodded. “It smells amazing. This is all so amazing.”
Felicity stopped cutting and looked up at him, offering one of her rare, sparkling smiles. Kyle thought that for a moment she might stand up on her tiptoes and kiss him. Then her eyes trailed behind his shoulder and Kyle could feel her father’s eyes shooting over his.
“Yes, it is so amazing,” she concurred, placing a slice of cake for herself and Kyle on two tiny plates and poured each a cup of coffee. “Let’s sit.”
Felicity side-stepped MacCartney and sat behind him on the couch. Her face glowed under the fractured light of the chandelier and warming flames of the fire. Kyle lingered and wondered whether or not it would be presumptuous to sit down beside her. She placed her coffee on the table and lifted her fork to sample the cake. Her fork stopped mid-motion when she perceived that Kyle was still standing.
“Please sit. Make yourself comfortable,” Felicity insisted. She patted the empty cushion next to her. His face beamed, as he tempered his desire to skip over and join her. Once Kyle was seated, Felicity flicked Mac on the ear and peeked over his shoulder.
“What’s so fascinating that you haven’t even said hello?”
“Birds.” Mac held up his book. “Look, this one that’s blue, just what they’re called on the Outside, bluebird. Amazing how clever they are. A blue bluebird.” Mac chortled, “Insanity.”
“Have you been drinking?” Felicity asked quietly.
“Redefine the parameters of the question, Flea. Cause you’re drinking right this very moment.” Mac answered, resting the back of his head against her knee so that he might stare up. When her face looked down sternly, he reached over to snatch a chunk of her cake, threw it in the air and caught it in his mouth, “Yes, mom. I had a drink, mind you a, meaning one. Don’t act like such a black hole of fun. I’ll start to think you’re someone else.” His eyes gestured to the girl just beyond sitting by herself. Noirah’s hands visibly tightened their hold on her book. “I just really like the birds, thank you. I’m trying to broaden my mind. Nature.”
“Don’t worry, my dear. He’s only had one. I’ve been watching,” the king confirmed from his chair.
“And I don’t need people watching me, thank you.” Mac leaned on the coffee table and pointed his finger at the king. “I say that to you as my father figure, not my king.”
“I keep an eye on you as both,” the king replied simply. For despite his misgivings and continued apprehension about letting the boy come so close to his family, Jacob grew to care for him, mostly through his daughter’s influence. Felicity found something in the lad worth saving; the king had witnessed just enough small flashes of potential to continue to foster the boy’s growth and continue to believe that something good might yet just blossom from this life which had up to now still teetered between the line of light and dark.
“Now, if we’re done with all of that, maybe I can amaze you with my bird erudition.”
“I’d like nothing better,” Felicity answered with a chuckle.
The night continued on blissfully. At one point Felicity placed her hand down on Kyle’s knee and Kyle took the initiative to place his own atop it. Kyle wasn’t sure what was said after that because all he could concentrate was on the soft hand held in his. He sometimes laughed when he heard other people laugh; he may have said something, it might not have been relevant to the conversation. He was happy. Nothing else mattered. And then she casually scooted closer to him and rested her body against his. He had only a moment to relish the sensation when he heard a book slam. Everyone’s head turned to witness Noirah standing up on her way out. She glared at Kyle.
“Kyle, could you come with me? I need your help with something.”
Kyle froze, his eyes darting like a startled rabbit’s from Noirah to Felicity to the king and then to Mac.
“What do you need help with?” Mac challenged.
Noirah rolled her eyes. “Nothing, MacCartney. I was trying to leave with Kyle in a subtle manner by using a ploy which I should have known wouldn’t work because what aid could Kyle possibly provide. But you caught me and I can quite confidently say that you have made us all rather uncomfortable. Though one can’t expect that you’d understand how to behave with any social decorum.” She gave a bright, fake smile. “Thanks for a lovely evening, all of you. I shall cherish these moments for as long as fate allows me life.” She crossed her fingers and closed her eyes. “I’m hoping to be a centenarian.” She opened her eyes and saw that Kyle hadn’t moved. “Stay if you want.”
“No, no. I’ll come. Be there in a sec.”
Noirah nodded, then left.
“You know, that’s the first time I’ve been in a room with her when we haven’t been at each other’s throats. Interesting.” MacCartney said as soon as Noirah shut the door behind her. “Perhaps because she didn’t open her mouth.”
“What did we talk about earlier, MacCartney?” the king warned.
“Stop stealing the silver?” The joke produced the prickly reaction that Mac had expected from the king. “I’m trying, I really am, sir. But it’s going to take more than a few days to erase all the years of animosity, as well as all the funny little quips I’ve created just in case I ran into her. I have a whole notebook filled! It’s really, really hard.” A stern look from the king sobered up MacCartney’s playfulness. “But I will overcome my vice. I’ll just add that one to the list. I have another notebook of those.”
“I thought so.”
“Thank you,” Felicity whispered, as she walked Kyle to the door, “For before, for listening.”
“If you ever need anything, anyone, I’m your man,” he assured, grinning ear to ear, feeling an utter fool but relishing every moment that he existed in that state.
“Yeah, I know.” She kissed his cheek, and his cheeks exploded with red. “You’re a good man, Kyle Walters.”
Kyle noticed that the king was watching them.
“I should go before your dad figures out what sort of thoughts are in my head,” Kyle said. She ran her hand down his arm until it settled near his hand. Her thumb lightly brushed his.
“Maybe you can share these with me later?”
Before Kyle could answer, Mac coughed. He had jumped onto the couch and watched their performance like an amused audience member. He gestured to the couple. “Hey look, your highness, found me some lovebirds. A rare species of bird that startle easily when they know they’re being watched.”
Felicity assured Kyle that she would soon kill MacCartney; he wholeheartedly supported her plan. But as startled lovebirds are wont to do, the two scampered away from each other feeling moderately disappointed.
Once out of the room, Kyle was not able to dwell long on his parting words with Felicity as Noirah, coming out of nowhere, pulled him by the arm and proceeded to drag him through the halls. “Hey, hey, what’s the rush?” He dug his heels in and stopped their progress, extracting his arm from her iron grip.
“I just needed to get out of there. That’s all,” she said simply. She sagged against the wall, her body completely lax. Life could prove wearying some days. Some days the fight proved too tough and she just wanted to quit. At any moment she might melt away into the wall itself and she wondered who else would notice but Kyle.
“I think I should leave tomorrow,” she stated.
“I think that you shouldn’t,” Kyle countered.
“Why?” Her body grew rigid, some life force returning to her, something which Kyle was glad to see. “Why exactly should I stay? Because as I see it this is what it would be like night after night.”
“I didn’t think it was all that bad, to tell you the truth,” Kyle replied, taking a step back as her eyes flashed. She wouldn’t attack him, he hoped. Still there was nothing wrong with taking precautions, just in case rage caused her to see in him people who weren’t actually there.
“Not for you, of course. They love you and you just love them. No, it wouldn’t be awful for you. You had the princess to keep you happy all night.”
“Hey, she had nothing to do with anything!” Kyle snapped. The people walking by were beginning to give their conversation ear and an extra glance of curiosity.
“She had nothing to do with anything,” Noirah mocked in a high pitched whiny voice, which Kyle knew he sounded nothing like, but was insulted anyway. “You spent the whole night doting on her like an imbecile.”
“Couldn’t have been reading that in-depth if you noticed all this, could you have?” Kyle retorted. Noirah’s nostrils flared, and he wouldn’t have been all that surprised if she sprouted horns and made a run at him.
“Well it’s hard to ignore such blatant displays of puppy love. It’s pathetic. This is what she does with sweet, little boys like you.” Noirah gave a twisted, cruel smile.
“And you wonder why no one likes you here! I’m your friend and you’re treating me like shit!” He threw his hands up in the air, feeling like he had had this conversation with her before. “Maybe if you got up off the couch and actually joined the conversation, you might have enjoyed yourself, but you just sat there! You don’t even try. Why did you even come, if you were just going to sit by yourself?”
“Yeah, why did I come? Why didn’t I just stay in my room? You know, I’d be better off if I never met you and I never had to see any of these people again. I’d be better off if you were all just blotted out of existence.”
She turned around and faced the wall. She pressed her hand against the cold brick and closed it into a fist, as though she might be able to break through the solid wall and hold it. Then there was silence. Kyle had nothing else to say and Noirah was being unusually quiet. He didn’t believe a word that she said. Yes, they stung but that’s what she wanted, to make everyone hurt as much as she did. Kyle, however, was stronger than that, better than allowing Noirah’s angered words to hurt him. He wouldn’t quit, just because things got tough. His mother wouldn’t want him to and she never had. No matter what Kyle said to her in the heat of the moment, she would always welcome him back with open arms. He would always be his mother’s son. He reached out and touched Noirah’s shoulder. She flinched.
“It can get better, Noirah,” Kyle offered.
She turned around with eyes a maelstrom of ire and grief, “No, it can’t and it doesn’t have to. Stop being such a Pollyanna.”
“If you go into things with that attitude, you’re right,” Kyle admonished, then added, “I don’t even know who Pollyanna is. New here, don’t know everyone in the palace.”
She shook her head. “The devil, you’re stupid. Pollyanna’s a literary figure from your world. Bet if she was X-man, you’d know who she was.”
“Yeah, well, I probably would,” Kyle answered. His answer eased the tension because she laughed a laugh that fought its way through everything that she felt in order to escape. He hadn’t left when she would have. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, looking rather sheepish and feeling rather stupid, which rarely happened. Obviously she had misjudged him. Something in her lightened.
Then she made a sound which Kyle could have sworn was a giggle. It was quick and soft to his ears, but it was there. She tucked a piece of her black hair, which had wandered to her face, behind her ear. It was kind of charming, he thought. He almost wished that he had taken the initiative to do it himself. It was an odd impulse or desire, but he felt it. And it was still there. He couldn’t move though. It was as if there was a force which held him in his place. The feeling was beginning to sublimate itself into a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“I still don’t think that you should go,” he said. Noirah shrugged her shoulders, her head tilted to one side looking up to him. There was a warmth to her eyes, but at the same time she looked like she might cry.
“It’ll be better if I do.”
“No, it won’t. You’re no happier at home than you are here. At least there’s stuff to do here. And you have friends here too. I’m here,” Kyle insisted. Noirah smiled a resigned, gloomy smile.
“Yeah, no home there, no home here. Always have Mogren’s cave,” she chuckled. “There are times when I swear to myself I’m not going to let them get to me but they do. Call me weak but it does.”
She wasn’t weak at all, Kyle thought. He had known her for barely a week and he knew that without a doubt. Even now when she appeared so different than before, there was something raw and beautiful about her, something completely unrecognizable. For a moment all the dress up went away and Noirah stood naked and vulnerable.
He didn’t know what made him do it, but he went to her and wrapped her in his arms. Her arms remained still at her side. Then dislodging her face from his armpit, she asked, “What are you doing?”
“Hugging you?” Kyle replied unsure. He knew that this was the general procedure for a hug, but it didn’t feel like one.
“Yeah, I think that you should stop that.”
“Yeah, I think I should,” Kyle complied and released her.
“You’ll make a great couple with Felicity. She always liked hugging. I never quite understood it. It always felt like a legalized form of choking.”
“What happened?” Kyle asked.
Noirah looked up at the ceiling and shrugged, looking at a loss. “Does it matter? It’s done. She was my best friend and now she’s not. She chose everyone else, but me.” She sighed and made a face. “Maybe I could have been at fault too. Some people might call me difficult.”
“Just this much.” Kyle at first brought his thumb and index finger very close together, but upon observation widened the gap as far as possible. “More like this much.”
“That seems generous in its underestimation.”
Kyle took a tentative step while standing completely still. “It was a long time ago. You don’t think that maybe –”
“No,” she interrupted sharply, “it’d just make things worse. I’d be the joke. Look at little Noirah groveling back into Felicity’s graces. Poor little Noirah with her tail between her legs. I won’t be a joke to those people. I’m better than that.” She stood straighter and gave an odd half smile, “And so I’m just going to leave and it’ll be like I never came. Everyone can just keep moving forward. But thank you for your words.”
Kyle took a cue from her, saddened by the inevitable. “God, keep your voice down, someone might hear. Noirah Tillard thanking someone, never.”
“Never.” He watched her struggle for a moment. He didn’t know about what, but she didn’t like the results. Nonetheless he saw her attempt to mask herself with her usual wry, sarcastic face. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m tired and want to go to bed and I imagine that you’ll want to hop into your own with dreams of Felicity dancing in your head.”
“You’ll wait to say goodbye, right?” he begged.
Her hand reached out and touched his shoulder. “You’re a good friend, Kyle.” Her hand lingered there for a second more and then she removed it. They stood there. He could see her melting. “Goodbye.”
She quickly pivoted and, before he could stop her, rushed down the hall. Kyle was going to call out, but he had no voice. He only watched her, even when she was gone. She’d wait until tomorrow. She owed him that much.